It’s easy enough (if pricey) to pick up truffle oil at any grocery store; some neighborhood restaurants even feature truffle oil fries on their menu as a sort of “elevated” pub fare. The flavor comes from the more widely available black truffle (or more likely a synthetic version), and it’s made the truffle something of a mainstay for mainstream restaurants and even home cooks looking to expand their flavor profiles.
But the real thing, the truffle that goes for upwards of $100 per ounce, is the much more rare (and impossible to synthesize) white truffle, a variety that only grows under very particular circumstances (thus, the scarcity and high prices): underground, in the root system of thick forests, in a certain part of the Italian countryside and only during certain months of the year (usually October through January). What’s more, this offshoot of the fungi family isn’t a crop that can be tamed or otherwise managed; it spawns fairly unpredictably and can’t be rushed. In the northwest region of Italy, it’s up to a small group of pros and their well-trained, truffle-sniffing dogs to spend their nights seeking out and harvesting the earthly white bulbs that will later show up on the menus of some of the most renowned restaurants in the world. It’s an economy unto itself, including supply chains, price fluctuations, steep competition and an impending reckoning with the unstoppable forces of climate change, gentrification and even time itself.
The Truffle Hunters, a new and unmissable documentary co-directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, drops us nose-first into this marvelous and mysterious world, where hunters keep the secrets of their methods as tightly guarded as any CIA operative and the competition to find and sell the best specimens is so fierce not even the trusty hunting dogs are safe from malicious acts of sabotage. With all the trappings of more traditional documentaries absent (there is no narrator, no on-screen notes on who we’re meeting or where we are), the film plays out a bit like a dream, as if we’ve stepped into a foggy, earth-toned, other-worldly space where a rare and coveted fungus is the currency of the day and livelihoods are made (and lost) on its possession. There’s interpersonal drama, back alley deals, cross-generational confrontations and the dirt-to-table journey of a delicacy that men (and they are mostly men) have dedicated their lives to not only finding but understanding.
The handful of truffle hunters featured in the film are mostly well into their 80s; they are a small and fading group of professionals who vary in their opinions about passing down their skills and secrets. Carlo is pushing 90 but as spritely as ever as he and his faithful dog Titina head out to the woods each evening to see what they can find. His wife begs him to stop this silly hobby and retire, but Carlo even tells the doctor checking up on him that he’s better than ever—he falls down and gets right back up, none the worse for wear. Aurelio has no children, just his trusty hunting dog Birba, who he feeds at the table as he eats his own dinner right next to her; buyers like Gianfranco try to convince him to pass his knowledge on to the next generation but as far as Aurelio’s concerned, he’s not going anywhere any time soon. And once the truffles come up from the ground, Paulo is there to judge them with his keen eye and sense of smell; he sits like a king, rotund and pleased, as a server shaves the rare white truffle over pasta for him to sample.
Time seems to have no meaning in The Truffle Hunters as scenes over breakfast (where Gianfranco, always on his game, tries to tell his young daughter why truffles are so special) and scenes in the dead of night (one of the hunters meeting a buyer with only a car’s headlights to illuminate the moment) nearly blend together with the moments in between, when the sun has just set and there’s a calm across the countryside before the night’s hunt begins. (They go mostly at night so they are hard to track and thus lose their territory to interlopers.) It’s the men and their various conversations that move us through this unique world, from their endearing interactions with the dogs they come to love like children to their commiserating with each other over the changing state of the industry, cottage as it is. There’s more wheeling and dealing than you might imagine, from the hunters bargaining for a better per-ounce wholesale price to the way Paulo reviews a small trove of truffles, deeming this one fine, that one too damaged, etc. There’s even doggie-cam footage as the filmmakers give us a snout-to-ground view of the rapid sniffing and searching these good dogs do to find the treasure.
A great documentary is many things, but one like The Truffle Hunters succeeds when it invites us into a world we know nothing about and leaves us feeling entirely connected to its people and culture by the time the credits roll. Indeed, the film builds such affection for Carlo and his wife, Aurelio and Birba, even Gianfranco and the rest that I for one was thrilled to join the filmmakers on a recent virtual conversation with Chicago Humanities Festival and hear that the men we meet, even nonagenarian Carlo, is still at it, still heading out to the foggy, dark woods each night to hunt out not only the rare white truffle but the thrill that comes with knowing you’re doing something special, something appreciated and something at which you’re particularly great. It’s no leap to say that in The Truffle Hunters, filmmakers Dweck and Kershaw know by the end that really, though we’re talking about truffles here, we’re really talking about so much more.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!